WHY WAS STEPHEN STONED?
(A Study of Seven Factors Which Led To A Good Man's Death)
Scripture Reading Acts 7:54-60
INTRODUCTION In the midst of the rapid growth and development in the church at Jerusalem, there surfaced an occasion of internal strife and discord. In the daily serving of the needy saints, the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked, whereas the Hebrew widows were not. Undoubtedly, charges such as racism, favoritism, and discrimination were beginning to be heard within the church.
A serious problem existed that needed immediate attention lest the church be torn apart. The solution (as stated in Acts 6:3f) was to appoint seven men "of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to oversee the daily ministry of meeting the needs of the needy.
Through their administration, the work would proceed fairly ..... ALL would have their needs met ..... the tension would subside within the congregation. One of these seven men was named Stephen. Acts 6 tells us Stephen was a man "full of the Spirit of God, full of faith, and full of grace and power."
He was a remarkable man ..... one who performed miracles (Acts 6:8) ..... he was very evangelistic ..... undoubtedly led many to Christ Jesus. And yet at the end of the next chapter of Acts (chapter 7) we see him being stoned to death by a mob of angry Jews! What happened?! What brought about such a remarkable turn of events?!
Considering his wisdom, his faith, his reputation, his works of service, and his miraculous power, why would anyone want to destroy this man?! This is the question we want to try and answer this morning.
WHY was Stephen stoned?! The answer may well surprise you!
#1 -- HE SERVED AMONG THE PEOPLE
The first factor which led to the ultimate death of Stephen is found in Acts 6:8 --- "And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great signs and wonders among the people." Stephen could have stayed home, stayed safe, just quietly attended to his duties of caring for the widows, and thus maintained the good favor of the people.
But Stephen realized there were people all around him who were lost. People who needed to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. People, perhaps, who had participated in the process that led to the crucifixion of Jesus; who needed to hear that it was their Messiah they had executed.
So Stephen didn't hide within the four walls of some "church building" and play the "saintly sage." Rather, he got out there among a hostile Jewish audience and boldly proclaimed the Truth ..... Truth which, at that time and in many circles, was not a popular message.
Stephen realized that in the battle for men's souls, the soldier of Christ must not be found cowering in a foxhole, afraid to engage the enemy. He must be out among the people, where the battle for souls is being fought.
The first reason Stephen was stoned, therefore, was that he was visible and he was vocal.
#2 -- INABILITY TO RESIST HIS SPIRIT
The second factor which ultimately led to his untimely death was that the people who opposed him were unable to successfully cope with and refute his teaching ..... nor were they able to abide the spirit with which he spoke.
Acts 6:7 informs us that the number of disciples was "increasing greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were even becoming obedient to the faith." The Jews, who were obviously concerned about his success, "rose up and argued with Stephen" (vs. 9). Apparently they viewed him as being one of the primary reasons this growth was taking place. Thus, they argued with him publicly.
The Greek word translated "argue" here is suzeteo, which means "to engage in controversial and public debate." These debates with Stephen undoubtedly got very heated, and they happened in the public eye. Again, we see his high visibility!
But even worse, at least from the Jews' point of view, Acts 6:10 says "they were unable to cope with (stand up against) the wisdom and the spirit with which he was speaking."
The Jews were determined that they were going to stop this teaching. Stephen was too successful. Thus, they were going to shut him up, and they were going to do it publicly so as to humiliate him and destroy his influence and credibility with the people.
However, just the opposite occurred. It was they who were made to look foolish, because they could not refute the wisdom of his message. Nor could they cope with his godly spirit. Stephen was proclaiming Truth, and they could not stand up against it.
There is an old proverb --- "Stones are not thrown except at the fruit-laden tree." Stephen was stoned, in part, because he was speaking Truth, and this was bearing fruit. This was too much for his opponents to cope with.
#3 -- FALSE WITNESSES & ACCUSATIONS
Truth which is wisely and boldly proclaimed cannot be met head-on by those engaged in falsehood. The Jews finally realized this, which led to the third factor ultimately resulting in the stoning of Stephen --- they attacked him with lies!
"Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God'" (Acts 6:11). In vs. 13 it says that "they produced false witnesses," who testified (before the Sanhedrin), probably under oath, additional lies.
Since the Jews couldn't cope with the wisdom and the truthful teachings of this man, they chose to attack the man himself. If you can't refute the message, then worldly wisdom suggests you attack the messenger. This then became their tactic and strategy.
Were these witnesses telling the truth? NO ..... they perjured themselves before the high council of the Jewish nation: the Sanhedrin. Their accusations were the farthest thing from the truth. But, these men were not interested in God's Truth, they were interested only in stopping Stephen ..... and if they couldn't do it honorably, they would do it dishonorably!
They felt the end justified the means, and in this case the means was: false accusations and lies which were testified to by men who had been bought and paid for. How much lower can one sink than to utilize such methods to destroy another man. Not only were these tactics designed to destroy Stephen's reputation and his effective ministry among the people, but they ultimately led to his violent death!
#4 -- THEY STIRRED UP THE PEOPLE
The enemies of Stephen were not content to simply lie about him and produce false witnesses to bring false accusations before the Sanhedrin. They additionally stirred up public opinion against him to the point that the people, who came to believe the lies, were ready to do away with Stephen.
Acts 6:12 --- "And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away."
The phrase "stir up" is the Greek word sugkineo which means "to whip into a frenzy; to stir up a commotion." This is the only time this word appears in the Bible.
These people worked the crowds. They whipped the people into a frenzy with their lies and false accusations. The people became so worked up that all they wanted was the blood of the righteous Stephen.
This was much like the situation in Ephesus during the 3rd missionary journey. The critics of Paul whipped up the people of the city to the point of frenzy.
Acts 19:32 says the people were in total confusion, "some were shouting one thing and some another, and the majority did not even know for what cause they had come together!" Mob psychology is a fascinating study! If you can whip a crowd into a frenzy, you can manipulate them into acting in ways which, under normal circumstances, a rational person would never consider. Through lies, and the public testimony of false witnesses, and some clever manipulation of public opinion, these enemies of Stephen achieved what they were unable to do alone --- the destruction of this godly man.
One commentator wrote: "Enemies of truth will always appeal to the people by false accusations against those who preach truth. Slander and rumor will always agitate a crowd. Those determined to prevail at all costs will ultimately be led to the point where they attack the man, rather than the message."
#5 -- THEY WERE CUT TO THE HEART
After the false charges had been leveled against him, Stephen was given the opportunity by the High Priest to make a public defense of himself before the supreme council of the Jewish nation: the Sanhedrin. And this Stephen did. However, the "defense" was not really a defense of himself, but rather an impassioned plea for these people to come to their senses and to accept the Truth of Jesus Christ. Some have even called this an attack, not a defense.
Stephen got very frank with them ..... he didn't mince words. He told them they were stiff-necked, that they were uncircumcised in heart and ears, that they were always resisting the Holy Spirit. He accused them of being murderers and betrayers of the righteous, just like their ancestors before them!
Needless to say, his frankness before the court did not sit well with these leaders, nor with his accusers, and certainly not with the people who had been stirred up against him. Acts 7:54 says, "Now when they heard this they were cut to the quick (furious in their hearts), and they gnashed their teeth at him." They were so angered that he had dared to speak this way with them -- never mind how they had spoken about him -- they were filled with such rage, that they began to grind their teeth in their fury.
#6 -- THEY COVERED THEIR EARS
Furthermore, Acts 7:57 says that "they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse." These people refused to hear another word from this man. They didn't care what he had to say ..... they were simply NOT going to listen.
They were more than willing to listen to the accusations, but they covered their ears rather than hear his defense and the Truth. How typical this is of human nature. We love the juicy tidbit about someone else ... the flaws and failings ... but we're not nearly as quick to listen to reason and the voice of Truth.
It's almost as if we want the lies to be true; we want to revel in scandel. The fact that publications like the National Inquirer sell so well reflects this flaw in far too many of us.
The people of Jerusalem, having lost all sense of reason, rushed upon Stephen, drove him out of the city gates, then picked up the nearest and the biggest rocks they could handle, and they stoned him to death. And Stephen became the first martyr in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
#7 -- SOME STOOD AND WATCHED
All of this was a terrible tragedy, but perhaps the most troubling aspect of this entire episode is: Scripture indicates that there were some who stood by, and watched it happen, and did nothing! We even know the name of one of them -- Saul of Tarsus (later to be known as the apostle Paul).
It seems we're always hearing on the news about a woman being raped, or someone being mugged, and there being people present who could have helped, but who instead stood and watched and did nothing! Are they not just as guilty as those actively committing the offense?!
All through the wicked process that culminated in Stephen's death, there were observers who knew the truth and who could have intervened. But, the record is silent about any such intervention.
At the end of Paul's life, as he himself faced execution for his faith, he writes, "No one supported me, all deserted me; may it not be counted against them" (II Tim. 4:16). One has to wonder if perhaps Stephen came to Paul's mind at this moment near the end of his own life!
In vs. 17 Paul says, "But the Lord stood with me" --- just as Stephen said he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. And his last words were, "Lord, don't hold this sin against them!" (Acts 7:60). No, I don't think Paul forgot Stephen! He carried the memory with him all his life.
Why was Stephen stoned? Because he was a man of faith, intent upon sharing the good news with others ..... because he stood his ground even though the message was not always popular ..... because he was bearing fruit for the Lord ..... because his opponents decided to stop him, and when they couldn't do it in honest, open debate, they did it with lies and false accusation and manipulation of public opinion ..... and he died because some did nothing, but rather stood silently by and watched.
What a tragedy! What a loss of a good man to the early church! But, what an example of godly determination in the face of ungodly abuse which Stephen has left us!
READ Matthew 5:10-12 and I Peter 3:13-17
Article written by Al Maxey of Almagordo New Mexico
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